I am standing as Brexit Party candidate in the forthcoming EU elections. The response of voters so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Phew. Here’s a chance to demonstrate that the shambles that parliament has made of delivering on a referendum mandate will be challenged by a democratic fightback. It really is exciting. But, I admit, deciding to stand was rather more nerve wracking, and sent shockwaves among my peers.
“Why on earth rock the boat, it could ruin your life and career?”. Just one of the incredulous warning notes sent to me when a friend heard I was considering standing. I certainly had doubts about throwing my hat in the electoral ring. I love my work at the Academy of Ideas, creating a public space for ideas to be contested without restraint and interrogating orthodoxies. I have secured regular appearances in print and on the broadcast media, most precious of which is my regular slot as a panelist on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; and I regularly speak to sixth-formers and student groups on everything from free speech to education policy. I feel privileged to have such platforms. Why jeopardise all that to stand in an election I hoped would never take place, for a parliament I believe is toothless and undemocratic? I genuinely agonised about whether to stand, but three specific incidents made me do it.
It was Tottenham Labour MP David Lammy who finally pushed me over the edge. I watched incredulous when Andrew Marr asked him if his previous comparison of the ERG to the racist rulers of Apartheid South Africa and to the Nazis had been over the top. Instead of mediating his remarks, he pushed back, saying his comparison was ‘not strong enough’. With shrill bombasity, he thundered, ‘I’m not backing off on this’, arguing that MPs who back a hard Brexit (aka Brexit, no ifs or buts) are promoting ‘extreme hard-right fascism’.
What made me incandescent was that this hyperbolic slur, by inference, branded millions of Brexit voters as supporting the most heinous kind of racist bigotry. More broadly, I have watched in horror as so many of my peers on the left, swept up by increasingly hardcore Remainia, have spit out a particularly poisonous narrative that Brexit itself is a toxic, hard-right phenomenon. Labour and Corbynite cheerleaders may have no qualms in deploying such scaremongering smears to delegitimise their own voters, writing them off as beyond the pale. But I just couldn’t let ordinary voters believe that everyone on the left would betray the Bennite tradition of labour movement Euroscepticism by leading such a vile hate campaign. I would need to step up and argue against such a toxic agenda.
My second reason for standing was a conversation with a couple who stopped me on the street the week after the Leave Means Leave rally at Westminster on 29 March, the day we were supposed to leave the EU. They recognised me as a speaker at the event. As lifelong Labour voters, they were in despair, but admirably determined not to give up their vote without a fight. Having seen me on the TV, they wanted to complain about the way the media had elided a gathering of tens of thousands of decent leave voters marching to parliament with a much smaller rump gathering of Tommy Robinson supporting bigots around the corner. They railed at the utter unfairness of having had a fantastic show of solidarity misrepresented and sullied by association. "We have fought racism through our trade unionism all our lives", they told me.
Their indignation was compounded by the realisation that Labour was as complicit as the Tories in selling out Brexit: “We will NEVER vote again.” The woman told me that not only had they both voted in every national and local election, but that she was the type of “annoying person who lectures neighbours, friends, workmates about their duty to vote, reminding them of the Suffragettes”. Grasping my hand and full of emotion, she asked: “And now what, what can we do now?” Her husband then whispered “we have even thought about voting for Farage’s outfit – as a way of defending democracy. What do you think? We’re just so frustrated…If only someone high profile on the left would stand too.” I realised it was a massive nudge; I swerved it by saying I was also considering voting Brexit Party. And I then went back to work. But their words haunted me all week.
My final prompt: the following weekend I was speaking at a residential event called Living Freedom, organised by my colleagues and aimed at 18-25 year olds. The spirited gathering of young would-be freedom-fighters, inquisitive, open-minded, passionate about free speech and equality, was inspiring. As I listened to brilliant lectures on everyone from JS Mill and Locke to Simone De Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt, I realised that my exhortation to these young people to take the reins in creating a new politics based on liberty might sound like empty exhortations.
Understandably fearful of putting themselves centre stage in the campus culture wars or in taking on censorious offence-mongers, they desperately needed the grown-ups to give a lead. And a nagging, insistent thought kept reminding me of the event’s title: Living Freedom. Was I avoiding actually living freedom, rather too comfortable in my media, think-tank world?
The following day, I switched on Marr and heard David Lammy. The rest, as they say, is history. On Monday, I phoned the Brexit Party.